The Murphy Clan – A History

Some Irish names can be traced back to a single clan within a single province. But the Murphy name is so spread across the island that scholars believe that it descends from separate clans in different provinces.

The strongest connections can be traced to a branch of the Kinsellas (Uí Cheinnsealaigh) whose stronghold was in County Wexford in the eastern province of Leinster. This branch took the name of Mac Murchada, which was later Anglicized as Muprhy.

The most famous (and infamous) of the Murphy chieftains reigned as King of Leinster through most of the 12th century. Let’s follow the tale of Diarmait Mac Murchada…

Diarmait Mac Murchada (abt. 1110 – 1171)

Diarmait Mac Murchada is also known by several other name variations, including:

  • Dermot MacMurrough
  • Dermot MacMurragh
  • Diarmait Mac Murchadha

He was a key and divisive figure in Irish history. This Irish king’s actions led to the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland.

Diarmait Mac Murchada was born around the year 1110. His older brother, Éanna Mac Murchada was the King of Leinster (the eastern province that now includes the capital city of Dublin).

The Mac Murchada brothers were great-grandsons of Mac Mael na mBó of the 11th Century. The descendants of this great chieftain were the Kinsellas (Uí Cheinnsealaigh) and one of the Murphy clans (Mac Muchada).

You can read more in our history of the Kinsella clan. Like most things in a small country, it’s all interrelated.

Diarmait Mac Murchada was chosen by the clan chiefs as his brother’s successor and was made King of Leinster in 1126.

His turbulent reign was fraught with war and strife with other provincial kings and clans. Diarmat sided against the O’Connors when their leader claimed the High Kingship of Ireland.

But he took O’Connor support when the wife of a provincial king, Tiernan O’Rourke, ended up in Diarmat’s custody. Diarmait either abducted Dearbhla or she fled to his sanctuary…there are competing accounts.

Eventually in 1866, the High King Turlough O’Connor made an alliance with the vengeful Tiernan O’Rourke (amongst other clans) and drove Diarmait out of Leinster.

The Mac Murchada (Murphy) clan has a legitimate claim that these actions by their rivals were what precipitated what happened next. But it’s the name of Diarmait Mac Murchada that gets associated with subsequent events that shaped the colonial history of Ireland.

Inviting The Anglo-Norman Invasion

In exile, Diarmait sought assistance to regain his kingdom. He went first to Henry II, the King of England.

The English monarch steered the Irishman in the direction of various Anglo-Norman lords, including Richard de Clare, also known as “Strongbow.” Diarmait offered his daughter, Aoife, in marriage to Strongbow as part of a deal.

With the approval of Henry II, Strongbow led a group of Anglo-Norman lords to Ireland in 1169 to help Diarmait regain his kingdom, but it was a Pyrrhic victory for the Leinster King. He died a short time later in 1171.

With this new instability in the province, Strongbow claimed the Kingdom of Leinster through his marriage to Diarmait’s daughter. But Henry II feared Strongbow’s growing power and decided to intervene directly.

This led to the larger Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland and, ultimately, centuries of English and later British rule over the island.

Diarmait Mac Murchada is often portrayed as a traitor in Irish history for bringing the Anglo-Normans to Ireland. It’s more reasonable to judge him as an ousted king trying to regain his territory.

He could not have foreseen the consequences of the web of alliances and political maneuvering his actions precipitated.

If Mac Murchada Lost, How Is The Name So Common?

In modern times, Murphy is the most common surname in Ireland. But its proliferation cannot be directly attributed to Diarmait Mac Murchada.

The adoption of surnames in Ireland occurred between the 10th and 12th centuries. It’s likely that several different (and unrelated) families adopted the name independently for the same reason that Diarmat’s immediate ancestors took it: because of its meaning.

It’s a variant of the word “Murchadh” which means “sea warrior”. Strong chiefs were likely attracted to the name as an indicator of their power and influence.

If you want to learn more about the numbers, check out our article on Murphy as an Irish and American name.

Origins From “Irish Names And Surnames”, 1923

“Irish Names And Surnames” was published by the Reverend Patrick Woulfe in 1923. Some academic opinions have changed since Woulfe wrote his book, but it still stands up well.

He traced the name to three ancient families and noted there were probably more.

(1) a family of Cinel Eoghain, who were chiefs of Siol Aodha, in the present Co. Tyrone.

(2) a family of the Ui Fiachrach who were chiefs of a district on the southern shore of Sligo Bay, now comprised in the parishes of Skreen and Templeboy, but were dispossessed and dispersed in the 13th century.

(3) a branch of the Ui Ceinnsealaigh, in Co. Wexford, who were chiefs of Ui Feilme, which comprised the barony of Ballaghkeen, in the east of that county, and formed a distinct clan down to the early part of the 17th century.